“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”
On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.
That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Painewrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.
George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.
Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.
In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.
Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.
A fith-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
A plot against the person of George Washington himself.
Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.
Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.
“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”
The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.
No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.
Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.
The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.
Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.
Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)
The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.
Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.
It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.
* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.
** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.
On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.
Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)
General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.
The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.
Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”
The mischief, however, extended.
The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.
Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders.
Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers.
A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.
That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.
The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)
On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.
The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.
According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.
Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**
Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain
were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.
This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a
greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner
Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.
Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?
“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)
Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.
Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s
effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)
Discipline and Punish
Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.
Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.
Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.
Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.
If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.
All four of the hanged were Quakers.
* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.
** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.
On this date in 1780, the honorable British Major John Andre got what Benedict Arnold had coming to him.
Piqued that his (quite considerable) brilliance in the field did not earn honors he thought his due, General Benedict Arnold contrived to betray West Point to the British during the American Revolution — the plot that made his name a synonym for treachery.
Enter Clinton’s adjutant John Andre, head of British Special Intelligence.
The dashing officer, well-liked in society on either side of the permeable divide between Tories and Patriots on the continent, slipped into Haverstraw, N.Y. to make the arrangements. On his way back — when he already thought himself safely clear of American-held territory — he was nabbed with the incriminating documents.
The narrowly-averted betrayal was mirrored by the narrowest of escapes: luckily for Benedict Arnold, Andre was received in custody by a subordinate officer of his, whose initial report to Arnold alerted the general to his danger and enabled him to escape to the British a whisker ahead of the law.
Treason, of the blackest dye, was yesterday discovered. General Arnold, who commanded at West Point, lost to every sentiment of honor, of private and public obligation, was about to deliver up that important post into the hands of the enemy. Such an event must have given the American cause a dangerous, if not a fatal wound; happily the treason has been timely discovered, to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it, afford the most convincing proofs that the liberties of America are the object of Divine protection.
It was a gentlemanly war, and Andre didn’t seem like the guy to hang in the whole exchange. But his argument before a court-martial that he was merely availing “an advantage taken in war” by agreeing to talk to an enemy general who wanted to hand them the keys to a fort didn’t fly: he’d been behind enemy lines, out of uniform, sneaking around. That made him a spy.
And the British refused to obtain Andre’s liberty by trading the man the Americans really wanted to execute.
Instead, by year’s end, the hero of Saratoga was commanding redcoats in the field — perhaps a little nervously; when he asked a captured American what might happen to him should he be taken, the reply was “Cut off your right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet.”
John Andre was left holding the bag, to the dismay of just about everyone American and British alike. This extended account of the luckless major’s last moments* is from the pen of Continental Army surgeon James Thacher.
Major Andre is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged…
The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency [George Washington] and his staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful … Major Andre walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most comformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness, he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his had and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.” He was dressed in his royal regimentals and boots, and his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, and interred at the foot of the gallows; and the spot was consecrated by the tears of thousands.
Thus died, in the bloom of life, the accomplished Major Andre, the pride of the royal army, and the valued friend of Sir Henry Clinton. He was about twenty-nine years of age, in his person well proportioned, tall, genteel and graceful. His mien respectable and dignified. His countenance mild, expressive and prepossessing, indicative of an intelligent and amiable mind. … considered as a skilful, brave and enterprising officer, and he is reported to have been benevolent and humane to our people who have been prisoners in New York. … The heart of sensibility mourns when a life of so much worth is sacrified on a gibbet. General Washington was called to discharge a duty from which his soul revolted; and it is asserted that his hand could scarcely command his pen, when signing the warrant for the execution of Major Andre. … Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for Andre, not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.
Andre makes a sort of loyalist counterpart to Nathan Hale. Interestingly, Thacher’s account — in which he uses his old diaries for a book that was published in 1823 — footnotes an extended narration of Nathan Hale in a comparative vein, complaining that “whilst almost every historian of the American Revolution has celebrated the virtues and lamented the fate of Andre, Hale has remained unnoticed, and it is scarcely known that such a character ever existed.” Today, in terms of their public recognizability, the two are rather reversed.
* Andre was to have been hanged October 1, but the matter was stayed when a British deputation arrived under flag of truce to make one last parley for their man’s life.